The last voyage of famed Chinese admiral Zheng He

Society & Culture

At its height, the Ming dynasty had more than a thousand ocean-going vessels, including large "treasure ships" equipped with luxury cabins and weaponry. At the helm was Zheng He, an admiral who has fascinated historians in recent decades.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: January 19, 1431

It’s the middle of the coldest season in the northern hemisphere; who wouldn’t want to head for the south seas? On a winter’s day in Nanjing, 591 years ago this week, the Ming admiral Zhèng Hé 郑和 stood on the deck of his flagship leading a fleet of vessels to do just that. It was something he had been doing for 30 years, but this would be his final embarkation. This Week in China’s History takes an overdue look at China’s most famous admiral and his celebrated voyages, and why they are both less, and more, than they are often portrayed to be.

Setting out in 1431, Zheng had reached 60 years old, the age for serious reflection. It had been an unlikely course for a life that began in 1371 in Yunnan as Mǎ Hé 马河, the son of a minor official in the Yuan dynasty who was killed during the Ming conquest. Captured at 10 years old, he was castrated and enlisted into military service, thus beginning a career that would lead him to become one of the Ming emperor’s most trusted advisors.

Zheng’s patron was the third emperor, who came to power in a three-year civil war. Claiming the throne from his nephew, the new Yongle emperor moved quickly to establish his legitimacy. Records of his predecessor’s brief reign were destroyed and censored. The new emperor set about moving the capital itself, from Nanjing to his base of political support in Beijing, where it would remain for 500 years. Internally, he purged rivals and their allies; externally, he set out to project Ming power.

Specifically, he wanted to expand Chinese influence to the south. Yongle began this through land-based campaigns into Yunnan and today’s Vietnam; and in the early 15th century he began preparing for maritime expeditions that would carry this program forward.

Starting in the early 15th century, the emperor ordered the construction of great fleets. The statistics are overwhelming, especially in contrast to the European voyages that would begin a few decades later. The Ming official histories (all available online and in translation thanks to work by historian Geoff Wade and the National University of Singapore Press) record that well over a thousand ocean-going vessels were ordered. Zheng He’s flagship “treasure ships” may have been the largest wooden vessels ever constructed, and larger than any ship built until the end of the 19th century. The Ming official records, and many historians, contend that the treasure ships were some 450-feet long, though other scholars, including Sally Church and Xīn Yuánōu 辛元歐, argue that the ships were only half that large. Even if that is the case, the achievements were remarkable.

​​The fleets themselves illustrated the advanced state of Chinese naval technology. Each voyage varied slightly, but all of them had dozens, and sometimes hundreds of ships. The largest vessels were multi-decked, with luxury cabins both for the officers and the many merchants who accompanied the voyages. Thousands of soldiers, and hundreds of horses, were aboard. If the sources are literally correct, the largest of the ships were perhaps 400 feet long with four decks and could transport 500 tons, larger than anything built in the world up to that time. Even if they were smaller, though, they were still advanced examples of naval architecture. Faster than the Spanish galleons and Portuguese caravelles that would dominate Indian Ocean trade in later centuries, particularly with a trailing wind, they were designed to take advantage of the well-known monsoon winds of South and East Asia. Properly timed voyages could travel throughout the Indian Ocean basin outbound for half the year, returning when the monsoon shifted in the second half of the year. They were double-hulled (as the Song vessels had been as well) with as many as a dozen water-tight compartments.

The parameters of the Ming voyages, most but not all of which were led by Zheng himself, are generally well known. The first few journeys visited Southeast Asia, transiting the straits of Malacca into the Bay of Bengal and then as far as Calicut, on the west coast of India. Later voyages went farther, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden, and south along the east coast of Africa, calling at Malindi and Mogadishu. There is reason to think they may have gone even farther south, as far as today’s Mozambique (there’s not, despite some claims, reason to think they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Atlantic).

This last voyage, setting out in the winter of 1431, was different from the others. For one thing, there was a long gap between it and the previous expedition. More significantly, the Yongle emperor had died, and this voyage was sent by Yongle’s grandson, the Xuande emperor. This fleet followed the now-familiar itinerary as far as the Persian Gulf, but also sent an excursion to the holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina.

In 1433, on the return voyage, Zheng He died. Buried at sea, an empty tomb honors him near Nanjing. With both the admiral and his patron gone, the Ming voyages came to an end.

The conventional wisdom, supported by a cottage industry in Zheng He studies that has ramped up in recent decades, suggests that Zheng represents a hopeful aberration in Chinese history. Before they were abruptly shut down, the Ming’s maritime ventures offered a tantalizing glimpse of an alternative past, where a peaceful cosmopolitanism might have defined the early modern era, rather than the violent colonialism that Europe would peddle just a few decades after Zheng died. Perhaps.

But an empty tomb is a fitting symbol for Zheng He and his voyages since there is both more and less than meets the eye. Zheng’s voyages were remarkable, but what if they weren’t peaceful, or an aberration, or abruptly ended?

Historian Wade has shown convincingly that although the Ming fleets did not lead to settler colonialism as their European counterparts did, they were projecting force, and sometimes wielding it. The ships were well armed, equipped with weaponry as advanced as any in the world at the time: Wade cites Ming orders that describe the cannons, rocket launchers, and other firearms on board. Gifts of giraffes and exotic destinations are well documented, but the fleets also carried tens of thousands of men at arms. And while trade and cultural exchange were on the itinerary, the voyages were not all peaceful. Ming troops captured and took captive a Sri Lankan ruler in 1411, established a colony in Sumatra in 1407, and intervened militarily in a half-dozen other sites in India and Southeast Asia. It wasn’t quite the “string of pearls” that today’s Chinese strategists envision, protecting oil lanes coming from the Middle East, but Zheng and his counterparts did establish strategic outposts throughout Southeast Asia, protected by force.

The Ming voyages were certainly a pinnacle of maritime achievement, but just how much of an aberration were they? Chinese navigators had been sailing the South China Sea and beyond for centuries by the time of Zheng He. Advances in naval architecture, like the sternpost rudder, magnetic compass, and square-rigging, had been available to Chinese mariners long before they existed in Europe. The shipyards used for building Zheng’s fleets had been started under the Mongol Yuan. Ports from Guangzhou to Fuzhou to Ningbo teemed with people from across the Indian Ocean basin as early as the Song dynasty. In her new book Distant Shores, Melissa Macauley describes how China’s southeast coast was, by the Song and Yuan dynasty, “one node in an emerging international trade system.”

And finally, did they really come to an end? The easy symbolism is that the Great Wall replaced Zheng He for Ming policymakers and that China turned inward, to be pried open by Europeans 500 years later. It is true that political factionalism, high costs, and shifting strategic priorities led the Chinese state away from the sea, but China remained centrally involved across Southeast Asia. The Batavia massacre is just one example of the semi-colonial presence Chinese retained in the region. Macaulay’s book shows that the Chinese diaspora of the post-Opium War era had roots in, and continuities with, the Ming era and earlier. China’s involvement with the sea remained before and after Zheng’s treasure ships.

In just a few decades, Zheng He’s voyages have gone from trivia that offered an intriguing counterpoint to the European “Age of Exploration” led by Europeans to standard components of world history textbooks. Sometimes seen as a “unicorn” event — uniquely impossible to recapture — the best way to appreciate the Ming voyages might be as part of an ongoing pattern, not a fleeting peek down a road not taken.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.